Ask the grumpies: political polarization

Cloud asks:

Are we or are we not living in an age of unusual political polarization?

So there’s two ask the grumpies questions left in our queue of unanswered ask the grumpies and they’re both hard.  The other one is on the minimum wage and I actually know the answer to it (because it’s standard labor economics) but it’s gonna take a while to answer well because it’s a complex issue.  (All to get to the bottom line of “economists still disagree on this one.”)

This one is out of my wheelhouse, so I’m going to punt it.

My colleagues say yes and they point to gerrymandering and that easy filibuster rule.

Bogart actually brought up two blog posts in the comments when this was asked saying:

If you are talking about Congress, here are two blog posts by scholars who are widely published on this issue: , . The short answer is yes, and that most of the recent ideological motion has been a rightward move by Republicans. If you’re talking about the electorate, I’ll need to pull up different information and my sense is the story is somewhat murkier. Gerrymandering is clearly an issue (but nothing new), and it seems we (individuals) are self-sorting in ways that involve ideological clustering more than we used to, but I’d have to dig out sources.

To which I replied:

My sense is that every time the census districts are redrawn, gerrymandering is bad. But the essence of gerrymandering is such that it only takes a little bit to tip districts over on average (the way that gerrymandering works is you’re trying to get the biggest partisan bang for the buck, so there’s a lot of fragile districts), so as time goes on the effects of gerrymandering diminish until the next redistricting.

There’s also a lot of talk lately about how republicans are doing a good job of taking over state legislatures and state governments, which can have national effects through things like redistricting or setting educational curricula.

To which she responded:

I’d have to look this up to confirm/quantify, but my sense is that a noticeable Republican takeover of state legislatures and governorships coincided with the recent round of redistricting, leading to gerrymandering more obvious to many of us because it benefits those “other” guys. The development of majority minority districts has arguably also exacerbated this, as drawing district lines to concentrate African-American voters obviously concentrates a large and probably the most predictably Democratic constituency in one place and, by extension, makes it unavailable to others.

On the other hand, prior to the 1960s many Southern states (at least) simply didn’t redistrict (much), giving a pronouncedly amplified voice to rural (white) voters at the expense of urban (black) voters. So how bad things are is partly a function of what you’re comparing them to, as ever.

Finally, if we’re talking *historically* in terms of political polarization, say, pre-Carter, or pre-Roosevelt, or pre-Hoover… that I can’t say.  We’re certainly less polarized than we were in say, the 1860s.  (In that we’re not having a civil war.)

Are any of our readers (in addition to Bogart) more knowledgeable on this subject than the grumpies?  Chime in in the comments!


11 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: political polarization”

  1. Requin Says:

    How do you measure polarization? It’s not that easy, and depending on how you operationalize the concept (and different people have different ideas of what polarization means) you will get different answers. It’s also hard to find a decent measure that you can calculate going back far enough to say too much. Also are we talking about the voters or the politicians? Whose ideological movements influence whom? That said, here is a link to a blog post by a political scientist who doesn’t throw up his hands at this the way I’ve just done:

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Thanks! All good points.

      I had been thinking the question was about our politicians. In terms of *people*, there’s a book called Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America that I had to read for work a few years ago that comes to pretty much the same conclusion as that Washington Post blog. People in the US are remarkably similar and remarkably centrist with nuanced beliefs (with some exceptions).

  2. Rosa Says:

    In terms of people – to use the distinction you’re using – I don’t see how we could even measure this. Like the discussion of policing we’re having right now – just because there are more different voices available to most of us doesn’t mean those opinions weren’t there before. There was near-universal silence or approval in local white newspapers lynchings for many decades, but I’m sure underlying opinion was deeply divided along racial lines.

  3. chacha1 Says:

    I am not in the least an expert on sociocultural divisions in the 21st century, but as someone who reads a lot, I would say just look at our national history and you will feel a lot less desperate about what is going on now.

    Yes, there is polarization. But in my view it is primarily generated by the lunatics of both fringes. The fact that ordinary people share those ridiculous political photoquotes all over the internet does not mean that ordinary people are factioning. They are just momentarily stimulated by something that hits one of their buttons or flips one of their switches, and they pass it along without thinking about it for even ten seconds. Their actions in their private lives are predominantly politically neutral.

    Politics IS faction. Pretty much by definition. Politics as a career (whether as an elected official, an appointed judge, or a commentator) relies on creating a narrative of “us versus them.” It used to be landowning white men against landless white men (history of voting rights). This is just new skin for the old ceremony.

    • Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

      Who are these supposed lunatics on the left that have any public visibility whatsoever? Seriously, please name some. Because I am coming up empty. Even when I go to right-wing lunatic Web sites, the only people they themselves accuse of being left-wing lunatics are, at best, mainstream center-left politicians. So who are the left-wing lunatics you are thinking of that are generating polarization?

      • chacha1 Says:

        I think Huffington Post has a few lunatics. And by that I mean people who are so obsessed with how wrong the other side is that they don’t think things through objectively. Why should they? Objectivity doesn’t get pageviews. … I don’t read a lot of political commentary, for precisely this reason, but it washes up against me regardless.

      • Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

        Yeah, but who? Like actual examples of who are left-wing lunatics who are generating polarization, and what they are saying that is generating polarization. Not just “I think Huffington Post has a few”.

      • chacha1 Says:

        Me calling out specific liberal columnists for writing stupid stuff would be a waste of my time. I’m not interested in arguments, I’m just stating my views. Trying to “prove” that such-and-so is illogical is the equivalent of that old cartoon: “come to bed, it’s late.” “I can’t, someone is wrong on the internet!”

  4. MutantSupermodel Says:

    In the new issue of Smithsonian they dedicate the issue to the anniversary of Lincoln’s assasination. It was fascinating to read about the extremely polarized time and made me feel better about today.

  5. Cloud Says:

    Ooh, I’d forgotten about this question! Thanks for answering, although it is too bad you did it when I was on a business trip so didn’t notice the discussion. I’ll come back later and read the links.

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